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The prevailing theory is the Hawks are the more talented team than the Knicks. That thinking led to preseason predictions the Hawks, after their big free agency, would be a playoff team and the Knicks a bottom-feeder.
Seventy-two games has not changed the sentiment, especially with Atlanta soaring at a 27-11 clip since making the coaching change to Nate McMillan on March 1.
Knicks starting center Nerlens Noel, who embodies the Knicks’ grit, thinks “talent’’ is in the eye of the beholder, as Tom Thibodeau’s Cinderella club hosts Sunday’s Game 1 of their first-round series.
“I think they can ponder it however they want to ponder it on talent,’’ Noel said via Zoom after Wednesday’s practice. “I think we’re a team that plays together. I think we have talent, period. You don’t get to the NBA without being a great player. We just have to bring it game by game and be the more talented team that day — however you want to call it. I know we’re going to bring the grit, the grind of New York-style basketball. And they’re going to bring Atlanta. So I think we’ll be all right on that aspect.’’
Las Vegas odds have shifted back and forth, with the series veering toward a virtual pick ’em affair. The teams finished with the same record, 41-31, but the Knicks gained home-court advantage because of their 3-0 season-series sweep.
Two of those wins came pre-McMillan and the third occurred after superstar point guard Trae Young left the contest with an ankle sprain late in the third quarter with Atlanta leading by nine.
The Hawks signed snipers Bogdan Bogdnavovic and Danilo Gallinari in free agency while adding NBA Sixth Man of the Year stud Lou Williams at the trade deadline. Indeed, the Knicks do seem bigger than the sum of their parts.
“[We’re] just a confident team,’’ All-Star Julius Randle said. “We know who we are. We know what it takes to win. It’s really just as simple as that. We’ve been under fire, we’ve got the experience as a team and we just rely on each other. I’ve said the ‘Big 15’ all year. It’s really that.’’
Thibodeau’s message to the club for days has harped on the difference in intensity during the playoffs. Even for Thibodeau — who normally works late hours watching film but steps it up for the playoffs, sources contend. Thibodeau may even go from his normal three cups of coffee to five.
“You can tell, you know he’s ready for the challenge at hand,’’ Noel said. “He gave us two booklets, but it wasn’t as big as the beginning of the year. We definitely have been locked in on that, studying their sets. Especially for the young guys, to be able to see this so early on in their career, is definitely major. To understand what it takes to win a playoff series, you understand everything you have to put into it, how much every little thing matters’’
The Knicks were the NBA’s surprise story. They led the league in a handful of defensive categories, including opponents scoring average (104.7) and 3-point percentage (33.7 percent). And in a shocker, they wound up third in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage (39.2 percent).
Have the Knicks maxed out with their talent level? Randle, who has put together arguably the best regular season in Knicks history, says perhaps not yet.
“Definitely think I can [be better],’’ Randle said. “I definitely think I can improve, already know how I can improve going into the playoffs. I definitely think I can do better for sure. Is it necessary? We’ll see, but I think it will be. We’ve said all year, prepping for the playoffs, the intensity level is going to rise, the level of play is going to rise. So I’m going to have to be better. Everybody’s going to have to be better if we want to accomplish what we want to accomplish.’’
Randle averaged 38 points in the three games against the Hawks, including two 40-point explosions.In a point-forward role, he finished the season with a statistical line no other Knick ever achieved — 24-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, six-plus assists. The Knicks warrior registered six triple-doubles and led the NBA in minutes played, suiting up in 71 of 72 games.
Randle averaged 38 points in the three games against the Hawks, including two 40-point explosions.
In a point-forward role, he finished the season with a statistical line no other Knick ever achieved — 24-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, six-plus assists. The Knicks warrior registered six triple-doubles and led the NBA in minutes played, suiting up in 71 of 72 games.
Nobody needed a week’s rest more than Randle, making his playoff debut at 26.
“For me, this week is important,’’ Randle said. “I’m doing everything — recovery-wise, taking care of my body — to make sure that I’m as fresh as possible heading into this series. It’s obviously great to have a week to prepare. I’m trying to do my best to make sure I’m ready for the grind of the series.’’
Randle doesn’t care about any numbers but “four” — the number of victories to beat the Hawks.
“As far as the season, I guess I’ll leave it up to you guys,’’ Randle said of the media. “Y’all can praise me or whatever you want to do. I’m really just focused on this team and doing what I gotta do to help my guys win.’’
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